The Black List is pleased to announce a partnership with the Walt Disney Studios to identify writers with diverse perspectives who have not made more than $250K for their screenwriting work in the last ten years for Disney’s Feature Writers Program. This is the second such partnership between the Black List and a major Hollywood studio.
The Walt Disney Studios’ Feature Writers Program is a paid one year residency housed in Disney’s live-action production group that provides up-and-coming feature writers with development and mentorship opportunities.
“There are countless stories to be told and we’re always looking for new perspectives at every stage of filmmaking, especially during the creation of a script,” said Walt Disney Pictures President of Production Sean Bailey. “Disney is thrilled to partner with the Black List to uncover the next generation of creative and talented writers who will create the classic stories of tomorrow.”
Beginning today, writers with screenplays hosted on the Black List website can opt into consideration. On May 5, 2014, the Black List will select a short list of between five and ten writers based on the data gathered about each script during its time hosted on the website. Each finalist will then provide a professional resume and one page personal statement, which will be reviewed along with their selected screenplay by executives in the Walt Disney Studios live-action production group.
To be considered, simply opt in during the script upload process or on your My Scripts page.
As many of you may know, my favorite movie is The Apartment, so it’s not surprising that my favorite filmmaker is Billy Wilder. His list of writing and directing credits is almost absurd, both in terms of sheer quantity and breadth of content. Comedies, dramas, crime thrillers, war stories, romantic comedies, other than science fiction, fantasy and horror, Wilder just about touched all the bases: Ninotchka, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Spirit of St. Louis, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, just to give you some idea of his talent.
So I was completely blown away to discover a Writers Guild Foundation video featuring an hour-long video with Wilder conducted sometime in the 90s (he mentions Forrest Gump, so we know it’s at least after 1994).
Here is that video:
For the next week or two, when I have the time, I’m going to pull excerpts from the interview for an ad hoc series featuring the wisdom of Billy Wilder.
Structure to me is compared to building a house. You have to have a base where the house is going to stand. You have to have walls. You have to have pillars that are going to hold it up, the staircase, the second story and whatever.
Writing a picture is a mixture of architecture and – forgive me, a pompous word – poetry, storytelling on a certain level. But it has to have a very solid thing… so the second act follows the first act, it’s strong enough to keep the audience in their seats to see what is in the third act. But you need that very, very, very strongly.
It’s not that I make myself a drawing, a blueprint, it’s just kind of an instinctive thing. I’m talking about myself because if you talk to 500 writers, everybody has got his own method. Some just start writing. Some have the kind of flighty mind of… we have a very good example… Forrest Gump, writers who function like Forrest Gump, you don’t know where it’s going. You can’t do that with your picture, I couldn’t do it with a picture.
Mine is kind of a unique thing. I don’t like if you write a scene and you say, we’ll fix that later, we’ll go to the next scene and the next scene, I just go back to the first scene until it’s about as good as possible. I may change something subsequently, but I never write first version, second version, third version.
Plenty of screenwriters have alluded to the idea of construction, architecture and the like to describe the essence of a screenplay. For example:
“The construction is the most important goddamned thing. It’s like building a house–you have to build the outside properly before you put the bits and pieces inside afterward. Get your story, get your architecture right, and you can always add your dialogue afterwards. A story starts at the beginning, it develops, it works itself out, and it works up to its finale. The great essence of construction is to know your end before your beginning; to know exactly what you’re working up to; and then to work up to that end. To just start off and wander on the way isn’t any good whatever… because you’re wallowing.”
– Charles Bennett (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The 39 Steps)
“The first draft, the first structure is really important. Do it fast, don’t get stuck.”
– Oliver Stone (Midnight Express, Scarface, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July)
“Screenplays are structure.”
– William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, Misery)
Wilder certainly took this point of view to heart. Check out his famous list of 10 screenwriting tips:
The audience is fickle.
Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
Know where you’re going.
The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then—that’s it. Don’t hang around.
2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 and 10 are grounded in the importance of structure to a screenplay.
Since structure was so important to Wilder, he was one of those writers who, along with his writing partners including the famous I.A.L. “Izzy” Diamond, broke their stories in prep.
It’s interesting Wilder mentions Forrest Gump as a metaphor for writers who have a “flighty mind” and “don’t know where it’s [the story] going.” I remember talking with producer Wendy Finerman with whom I worked on a few movie projects about Forrest Gump, a book she discovered/ She told me the studio had hired 3 writers to take a crack at adapting the source material. None of those drafts worked. It was only when Eric Roth was hired that he focused on a single narrative thread that tied together all the disparate and meandering events of Forrest’s life into a narrative whole: The love story with Jenny. That subplot provided the necessary physical as well as psychological spine to the story, giving its structure a foundation from which everything else could flow.
More from Wilder’s interview in a few days. Until then, did you know that Wilder was involved in the production of dozens of movies in Germany before escaping the Nazis and relocating to the United States? And some of those movies are available for viewing in their entirety online.
One of them is the 1930 silent film People on Sunday. Check out these credits:
Directing Credits (in alphabetical order)
Curt Siodmak … (as Kurt Siodmak)
Edgar G. Ulmer
Rochus Gliese … (uncredited)
Writing Credits (in alphabetical order)
Robert Siodmak … (source material)
Edgar G. Ulmer
Yes, that Curt Siodmak who wrote dozens of horror and science fiction movies including The Wolfman and The Invisible Man Returns. Yes, that Robert Siodmak who directed dozens of movies including Son of Dracula and The Killers. Yes, that Fred Zinnemann who directed a string of notable movies including High Noon, From Here to Eternity, A Man for All Seasons and The Day of the Jackal.
From Tom Benedek, my colleague and co-founder of Screenwriting Master Class:
Happy Oscars, everyone. Several speeches last night were so inspiring. The show was slow but the talent, the movies they were a part of, glittered for me. 2013 was an interesting year for movies. Some say it was a great year. I think there were too few great movies. So – let’s all write great scripts in 2014. Onward!
I just finished my own first draft of a script and am doing a scene check (and major revision) this week before I hand it in to the producers. As always, there are “issues”. Among other things, I am looking at how I structured each scene. As usual — in a few scenes there is no conflict – heavy on exposition. Occasionally, there is an abrupt shift that is disconcerting. A few times, a montage ought to be replaced. On and on.
Which brings me to Quentin Tarantino and my upcoming scene writing class. Oscar is not a fan of violent films. However, Quentin Tarantino took home his second career best screenplay Oscar last year. Tarantino is a filmmaker of great skill and audacity. He is also one of us – a wonderful screenwriter who beat the odds through his vision and skill as a storyteller, a writer of original screenplays of high caliber.
Next week, I will be running a class worth considering – a study of scene writing, exclusively using Tarantino’s recent scripts to define certain characteristics of scene structure — to celebrate, learn and re-learn a few things about writing scenes.
The one week class starts on Monday, March 10. We will be looking at Tarantino’s use of conflict, expository, flashback, indirection, subtext, all the rest of it. He speaks to the reader a lot. His movies are sometimes violent but they are also highly emotional – romantic in the way that old Hollywood action movies often are. I think it is going to be a fun and instructive class. There will be four lectures. Class members can each post a scene for feedback and a quick revision. I hope class members will also present their favorite Tarantino scenes for discussion – so we can break them down and see how and why they tick so well so often. We all may have a little bit of Tarantino in us to unchain as we write script pages.
Consider joining me for what should be a very interesting class starting next Monday, March 10.
For more information on Writing Scenes — Tarantino Study Models with Tom Benedek, go here.
Back in 2012, I ran a 5-part series of screenwriting lessons based on what Michael Arndt says and writes. Here is Part 5 which gets into story beginnings.
I don’t know who went to the trouble of creating this doc — if someone out there can find the source, I’ll be more than happy to update with an attribution. In the meantime, I am reprinting this in its entirety.
Eight Steps for “Setting the Story Into Motion”
One of the hidden gems on the 4-disc Toy Story 3 Blu-Ray package from Disney is a ten-minute short film by screenwriter Michael Arndt. In it, Arndt reveals the eight step process that he found in films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles that helped him in writing Toy Story 3. Despite its short length, Arndt’s theory is an excellent contribution that deserves a closer look.
1. Show Your Main Character
Introduce the audience to your main character. As most of the story follows their perspective, you need to establish him in the mind of the audience. In the case of Toy Story, this is Woody. He is a toy that comes alive when humans aren’t watching.
2. Introduce the Universe that They Live In
Give your audience a chance to see the world that the protagonist lives in. In the case of Toy Story, we see that Woody lives in Andy’s room with the other toys.
3. Show Your Character’s Grand Passion
Show your character doing the thing that they love the most. What is their Grand Passion? In Woody’s case, his grand passion is his place as Andy’s favourite toy. He has the favoured position Andy’s bed and the introductory playtime sequences always show him as the star of Andy’s imagination.
4. Show Your Character’s Hidden Flaw
Only boring protagonists are perfect. Show the audience your main character’s flaw. Give them a flaw that comes out of their grand passion, that comes out of the thing they love doing the most. In Woody’s case, it’s pride. As Andy’s favourite toy, he has a lot of pride about his place in Andy’s bedroom. It is only natural that he gets his comeuppance.
5. Hint at Storm Clouds on the Horizon
Very subtly, hint to your audience that there is trouble out on the horizon. In the case of Toy Story, those storms clouds are Andy’s birthday party. All of the other toys are afraid of being replaced. Only Woody, proud of his status as Andy’s favorite tool, is unworried.
6. Turn Your Character’s World Upside Down
Something comes into your hero’s life and turns it upside down. It takes away their grand passion. In the case of Woody, the introduction of Buzz Lightyear changes everything. Because Buzz is such a cool tool, Andy and all of the other toys prefer him. Woody finds himself relegated to the Toy Chest while Buzz gets the preferred spot on Andy’s bed. Woody has lost his greatest possession: his status as Andy’s favorite toy.
7. Add Insult to Injury
If that is not enough, you have to add insult to injury. It is not enough to take away your protagonist’s grand passion, you always have to humiliate him in the process. In the case of Toy Story, not only does he lose his place as favorite toy to Buzz, Buzz has no idea that he’s a toy! As Woody loses favour, you can see his frustration at Buzz’s cluelessness. He’s being replaced by an imbecile! This step is important to show your character’s frustration at a world that is completely unfair.
8. Have Your Character Make the Wrong Choice
This is the big one. Bring your main character to a fork in the road. At this fork, they have two choices: a right choice and a wrong choice. Of course the character makes a wrong choice. Having seen what he has gone through, we understand perfectly why he makes the wrong choice. We even WANT him to make the wrong choice. This wrong choice comes out of his grand passion and provokes a crisis that sets us on our way to Act 2. Let’s take Toy Story again. In Toy Story, Woody, having been displaced and insulted by the deluded Buzz Lightyear, decides to try to knock Buzz behind the dresser so that Andy will have to take him to Pizza Planet. The plan goes awry, Buzz is knocked out the window, and the other toys blame Woody, leaving him no choice but to find and return Buzz to Andy’s room. That leads us right into Act 2.
Arndt shows us the same structure at play in Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. The structure works well because the plot develops from the hero’s internal character, making it more personal. It also gives us something that character, alongside the main plot, must resolve inside himself. In the case of Toy Story, Woody not only brings back Buzz safely, but he also learns how to overcome his flaws and earn the friendship of Buzz. The hero’s journey becomes as much metaphysical as physical.
When you boil it all down, Act One is fundamentally about two things: (1) Setting up your story. (2) Setting the plot into motion. We can see that here in Arndt’s eight items:
Setting Up Your Story
Show Your Main Character
Introduce the Universe that They Live In
Show Your Character’s Grand Passion
Show Your Character’s Hidden Flaw
Setting The Plot Into Motion
Hint at Storm Clouds on the Horizon
Turn Your Character’s World Upside Down
Add Insult to Injury
Have Your Character Make the Wrong Choice
And if you follow Arndt’s approach, which is knowing your ending first, then you craft a story beginning that is tied directly to the ending. The Protagonist’s “grand passion,” the Protagonist’s “hidden flaw,” the storm clouds, the wrong choice, all of those need to be linked to your story ending.
Just like Billy Wilder said: “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”
I trust you have enjoyed this week’s foray into Michael Arndt’s approach to the craft of screenwriting.
For Part 1 of the series on Michael Arndt, go here.